Wednesday, April 28, 2021

A deep dive into Lou Reed's catalog: The solid middle ground

1992: The Magic and Loss tour

I told you earlier about the albums I consider the four essential, must-listen Lou Reed albums, and I told you about four more Reed LPs I think are great but don't quite reach the Mount Rushmore level.

Now, here are five Lou Reed albums that fill that middle ground, the ones I rank 9-13 in his catalog of 22 studio albums. These are the records that are held in high regard by fans but are going to be hit-and-miss for casual fans and the uninitiated. None of these albums are great, certainly none of them are bad. Most any listener will find a few favorite tracks here. Depending on your tastes, you may very well find a favorite Lou Reed album among these.

No. 9. Set the Twilight Reeling (February 1996):
Album No. 18, his fourth for Sire Records, came four years after Magic and Loss -- the longest drought of Reed's career to that point. He was busy during that time -- the Velvet Underground did its reunion tour, Sterling Morrison died, the VU was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Most importantly, Reed divorced his second wife, Sylvia Morales, after he began seeing performance artist and musician Laurie Anderson, his future third wife and widow. Set the Twilight Reeling is a collection of straightforward songs reflecting Reed's mostly joyful emotional state during this period. "Egg Cream," "NYC Man," "Hookywooky" and the title track have Reed celebrating domesticity in the heart of his hometown. "Trade In" is both a vicious rejection of Sylvia ("A life spent listening to assholes/It's funny but it's true/So get rid of them I said to myself/But first I'm getting rid of you") and a celebration of his new life with Laurie ("I've met a woman with a thousand faces/And I want to make her my wife"). "Adventurer" is Reed's ode to Sterling. Set the Twilight Reeling is a collection of excellent songs performed by a tight rock-and-roll trio of Reed, bassist Fernando Saunders and drummer Tony Smith.

No. 10. Ecstasy (April 2000):
His 19th album, fifth for Sire, turned out to be the final proper rock album of Reed's career. Ecstasy is a solid set of Lou Reed songs, including a couple he had written for the 1996 Robert Wilson play Time Rocker. Most all of these songs are midtempo examinations of human relationships, both conventional and non-, through a Lou Reed lens. The painfully beautiful ballad "Baton Rouge" and the eery and sadistic tale "Rock Minuet" are among my favorite Lou Reed tracks. "Big Sky" is a jubilant closer to a rock-and-roll career. Ecstasy loses some major points with the ridiculously self-indulgent "Like a Possum," Reed using his angry voice to spew an incoherent lyric over an 18-minute fuzz-and-feedback guitar riff. Remove that from Ecstasy's 77-minute running time, and you have a really good one-hour Lou Reed album.

No. 11. Sally Can't Dance (August 1974):
Reed's fourth studio album, still with RCA Records, was the highest-charting LP of his career, reaching No. 10 on the Billboard 200, probably thanks to momentum built by the live LP Rock 'n' Roll Animal earlier in the year. Sally Can't Dance was the first Reed studio album without any recycled Velvet Underground material. It also was the first one he recorded in the United States. And it marked the first time Reed employed an old VU bandmate for some session work -- Doug Yule played bass on the closing track, "Billy." Reed long said he was not fond of this album. He claimed it was his cynical reaction to the critical and commercial rejection of the previous year's Berlin, an attempt to phone in something that might sell. I think it's fine. Reed recorded several albums not as good as this one. Much of the album -- most notably the two "Sally" songs, "Ride Sally Ride" and the oft-covered title track -- features some Reed R&B and funk dabblings, which work pretty well. Sally Can't Dance is not one of Reed's better efforts, but I would argue that it is one of his most critically underrated ones. 

No. 12. New Sensations (April 1984):
Reed's 13th album and third in his mid-career return to RCA happened as Sylvia was working feverishly to make Reed a media star. He got involved with several of the big charity concerts of the time, most notably Amnesty International's Conspiracy of Hope tour and the early Farm Aid shows. Reed issued several music videos for MTV, at least three with songs from this album. And he starred in a TV commercial for Honda Scooters right around this time. New Sensations is an apt title for this bouncy album in which Happy Lou celebrates life's simpler pleasures like watching movies and playing video games and joy-riding his motorcycle. It's a decent album, but in contrast to Sally Can't Dance, I think this and the next one are two of the most overrated in Reed's catalog.

No. 13. Magic and Loss (January 1992):
Reed's 17th album and third for Sire, this one confounds the hell out of me. It's the third in a series of concept records that mark a mid-career creative peak, following New York and Songs for Drella. Magic and Loss is Reed's reaction to the deaths of two friends in 1991 -- songwriter Doc Pomus, whom Reed considered a mentor; and a person Reed never identified but presumed to be Warhol denizen Rotten Rita. Critics tended to love this album, and the fan community generally holds it in high regard. But it's never been a favorite of mine. In fact, I never learned to like it very much at all. I don't hate it. I just don't find it endearing, not even a little bit. It's so dark and somber and slow. I appreciate the sentiment, I appreciate the artistry, I appreciate the musicality of this album. And I appreciate that it's an important album in Reed's catalog even if I really don't get it.

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